You are here:
You might think that after my time in Tayrona it’d be a bit of a downer to go back to the city, but frankly, though I loved the park I wasn’t at all disappointed because Santa Marta is a pretty charming place to “have” to come back to.
Founded in 1525, Santa Marta is the oldest city in Colombia, and much of the colonial architecture has been preserved. In the past couple of years many of the beautiful old houses in the historic district have been turned into boutique hotels—I wandered through several gorgeous ones that were remodeled by a Spanish couple (lacasadelfarol.com), leaving their Catalan touch all over. The influx of foreigners lured by the city’s charms combined with local efforts to modernize the city contribute to a downright pleasant atmosphere that feels neither backwater nor cookie-cutter tourist spot. Santa Marta is a bit dirty in comparison with Colombia’s non-coastal cities (which are often pretty spotless), though in no way does it feel grimy or gross.
The first cathedral to be constructed in Colombia was in Santa Marta, and it stands out as one of the markers in the historic district. Kitty corner from the Cathedral are a bunch of food stalls open late, where I had the best mango juice of my life along with great midnight snack food (in fact, both nights I spent in Santa Marta ended at these excellent food stalls). Cars drive by the stalls calling out their orders to the venders, then park at the corner waiting for the vender to run over, order in tow.
A couple blocks away is the ocean, restaurants lining the intersecting cobblestone streets. Trendy night clubs with colored lights and names like “Ibiza” are aplenty as well, but we headed to a bar called “La Puerta,” (Calle 17 No 2-29) which has been around forever and was much more our speed. It was packed, but the mix of inexpensive beer, blasting salsa/latin fusion and the funky interior was what we were looking for. (This is where personal preference make a huge difference, good thing I’m the one writing this post! Santa Marta is on the Atlantic coast, where vallenato is hands down the most popular kind of music. I don’t love vallenato, so we purposely sought out a bar that played other kinds of Latin music…but vallenato is everywhere, and you can find house/electronic, rock, and who knows what else if you look for it.)
The breeze from the coast is lovely, and you feel like you’re in a chill, relaxed city (something which, though I love it with all my heart, I could never say about Cali). People stroll the streets at night, looking for a bite to eat or some music to dance to. On the other hand, most Colombian tourists to Santa Marta seem to prefer another section of the city called El Rodadero over the historic center; it was crazy packed when we stopped by, the beaches and streets overflowing, giving you a totally different kind of vacation.
We stayed at a lovely, unfussy hotel (casaverdesantamarta) a couple of blocks from the Cathedral, in the traditional Colombian colonial style of white walls and natural woods. I would go back there in a second, and you should, too, if you’re ever in the neighborhood.
Really, Santa Marta is the city version of Tayrona — the relaxing Caribbean vacation that you have in mind, together with old-school architecture and some occasional Euro-fusion artsiness. After a day or two here, you almost wonder how long they will be able to maintain the balance, but you’re too busy drinking more mango juice and and floating through the streets to (a very comfortable) bed to care.